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	Image: William Dobell Margaret Olley 1948 © Courtesy Sir William Dobell Art Foundation

The art and science of face perception

Symposium in conjunction with the 39th Australasian Experimental Psychology Conference

The genre of portraiture has been one of the driving forces in Western art history since the Renaissance. Portraits are often regarded as embodiments of not only an individual’s character, but a society’s perception of itself. What can science tell us about the reception and interpretation of faces and portraits? This symposium presents a range of views from experimental psychologists that provokes new ways of looking at portraiture.

Speakers and papers

1. Rembrandt and modern vision science: Following the eyes of the masters

James T Enns, Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia

Scientists and artists are often interested in the same issues, though they come at it with different perspectives and tools. This talk will examine one aspect of the portraits of the famous Renaissance painter, Rembrandt, to see how he anticipated an understanding of the relationship between eye and mind that modern vision researchers have only become interested in more recently. This analysis has inspired new research to understand the links between looking, understanding and liking. The talk will be organized around four questions:
1. What did Rembrandt know and do ahead of his time?
2. Does selective highlighting of focus and blur really guide the eye?
3. How are looking and liking related, in art, advertising and life?
4. What are some mechanisms that link our eyes with our emotions?

James T Enns is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Psychology and the Graduate Program in Neuroscience. His PhD is from Princeton University and he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

2. Hot or Not? The Psychology and Biology of Beauty

Gillian Rhodes, ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, School of Psychology, University of Western Australia

Facial attractiveness strongly affects person perception, with attractive individuals often judged more favourably and treated better than their less attractive peers. This talk will consider what makes a face attractive and why we have the preferences we do. Variation in ideals of beauty across societies and historical periods has led to a long-held view that standards of beauty are part of our cultural heritage. However, this talk will present more recent evidence which shows that some preferences are part of our evolutionary heritage.

Gillian Rhodes received her PhD from Stanford University in 1986 and is currently an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow and Winthrop Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Australia.

2. Visual encoding of faces

Michael A Webster, Department of Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno

Many lines of evidence suggest that the visual system uses special processes for encoding and recognising faces, but the nature of those processes remains poorly understood. This talk will discuss work examining two aspects of this representation. The first involves perceiving an image as a face. Faces can frequently be seen in natural patterns like clouds or rocks, but what triggers this percept? The research team explored the necessary stimulus features and how they shape the initial interpretation of a face by asking observers to find faces in images that contain only noise. The second involves perceiving the image as a specific face. Individual faces may be represented by how they differ from the average face, but what defines this average? The team explored this by measuring how prior viewing of one type of face biases the appearance of a subsequent face. These experiments reveal strong adaptation aftereffects in face perception that are functionally similar to the afterimages that occur after viewing different colours, and suggest that face perception may constantly recalibrate the representation of the average face in the same way that color vision constantly adjusts for which stimulus looks grey.

Michael Webster received his PhD in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1988, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge until 1994. From there he joined the faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he is currently a Foundation Professor of Psychology and Biomedical Engineering.

Image: William Dobell Margaret Olley 1948 © Courtesy Sir William Dobell Art Foundation

Saturday 14 April 2012, 1.30–4.30pm

Free, bookings required

Free but RSVP required, to

Duration 3 hours
Location: Domain Theatre

Related exhibition: Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2012